20 on '20: Replacing Two Key Wisconsin Linebackers
With the news of Wisconsin football student-athletes planning to kickoff "voluntary athletics activities" by June 15 -- AllBadgers.com wanted to begin a series dedicated to the program entering a 2020 season that is supposed to start on Sept. 4 against Indiana.
I had some questions here, however. Do we highlight breakout or "most important" players according to a specific set of standards? Perhaps we look at the biggest concerns with a team returning many starters and contributors but has specific questions needing to be answered at key positions?
In that light, AllBadgers.com presents its "20 on '20" series where we dissect (you guessed it) 20 topics pertaining to the football program. For those needing to catch up, here is the series:
Topic No. 3: Replacing Two Key Wisconsin Linebackers
Monday's installment of the series detailed out some of the team's deepest position groups, and AllBadgers.com called out the cornerbacks, the safeties and defensive line. Those rooms have starters from last year at multiple spots, and there is depth behind them.
For that matter, the inside and outside linebacker groups return starters or contributors from last year as well. However, gone will be two captains that helped Jim Leonhard's 2019 unit recapture its pass-rushing and havoc-creating qualities. Zack Baun and Chris Orr not only were team captains last season, but they combined for 24 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss.
The former emerged into a consensus first-team All-American and got to opposing quarterbacks 12.5 times, while the latter trailed his teammate by just one sack and claimed consensus second-team all-conference honors.
On the edge, Noah Burks and Izayah Green-May both have starting experience from 2019, but it will be worth watching how they fare and develop a season later without Baun. Green-May started during the season-opener against South Florida, but a right arm injured held him out for the next contest against Central Michigan and allowed Burks to slide in.
Burks recorded seven tackles for loss but just two sacks; however, his big play of the season came against Northwestern on a 68-yard interception return for a touchdown. Green-May missed three games and finished with one sack and five tackles.
Behind them, the room of Bobby April III will need to find contributors in the two-deep, especially now that Tyler Johnson has also exhausted his eligibility. Like Green-May, Jaylan Franklin recorded a sack against the Bulls in Tampa. He has pass-rushing ability and speed off the edge heading into his redshirt sophomore season.
Another candidate is redshirt freshman Spencer Lytle. Wisconsin's spring roster listed him at 228 pounds, and though he did not play last year, he flashed potential during spring ball last April.
Can two four-star true freshman Nick Herbig or Kaden Johnson work their way in, or perhaps in-state products C.J. Goetz and Marty Strey?
On the inside in taking over for Orr, Jack Sanborn led the team in tackles (80) last season as a sophomore. He also tied for first in interceptions with safety Eric Burrell (three) while recording nine tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
Before the NFL Draft in April, AllBadgers.com asked Orr who he thinks will step up in his former position group once football returns. He first mentioned Sanborn.
"I think Jack is gonna take another leap forward," Orr said last week. "I think Jack's gonna have a big, breakout year."
Then there's who replaces Orr next to Sanborn. Going by seniority, Mike Maskalunas walked on to Wisconsin as part of the class of 2016 and finds himself in position to contribute more. Last season, he played in all 14 games and contributed 16 tackles.
Then there's Leo Chenal, who will be a sophomore for the 2020 season. As a true freshman, he worked his way into the two-deep and eventually played in 11 games. Of course, many know the Grantsburg, Wis., product for his physical strengths, as seen below:
Orr thinks both Maskalunas and Chenal will contribute alongside Sanborn.
"I think Mikey's gonna have a big year. Leo's going to have a big year," Orr said. "That'll probably end up being like a three-man rotation, but they also got some young guys. Maema (Njongmeta), I think he's gonna make some strides."
Though Njongmeta did not play in a game last season, he made the travel roster for a few games. Along with walk-on Tatum Grass, Wisconsin also welcomes three true freshmen in Malik Reed, Jordan Turner and Preston Zachman.
When talking with AllBadgers.com, Orr believed it was important for the inside linebacker group to have spring practices, but those organized team activities were suspended by the Big Ten for March and April due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I'm definitely gonna be watching closely and seeing if I can see any mental errors or anything like that," Orr said. "But I'm eager to see how they handle this because, during this time, you can sharpen up a lot, especially on the playbook. You can understand it so much more and clearer. I know they're still meeting with the coaches and stuff.
"I think they're all gonna step up in a big way, but if I said anybody, I would say Jack. Jack is going to have a lot of eyes (on him) because he made some plays this year, so he's going to be getting schemed up now."
Update, Jun. 27: Correcting Maskalunas's tackle total to 16. Chenal had 20 last season.